Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Hubble Uncovers Evidence for Extrasolar Planet Under Construction

17.06.2013
Nearly 900 extrasolar planets have been confirmed to date, but now for the first time astronomers think they are seeing compelling evidence for a planet under construction in an unlikely place, at a great distance from its diminutive red dwarf star.

The keen vision of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has detected a mysterious gap in a vast protoplanetary disk of gas and dust swirling around the nearby star TW Hydrae, located 176 light-years away in the constellation Hydra (the Sea Serpent). The gap's presence is best explained as due to the effects of a growing, unseen planet that is gravitationally sweeping up material and carving out a lane in the disk, like a snow plow.

Researchers, led by John Debes of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., found the gap about 7.5 billion miles from the red dwarf star. If the putative planet orbited in our solar system, it would be roughly twice Pluto's distance from the Sun.

The suspected planet's wide orbit means that it is moving slowly around its host star. Finding the suspected planet in this orbit challenges current planet formation theories. The conventional planet-making recipe proposes that planets form over tens of millions of years from the slow but persistent buildup of dust, rocks, and gas as a budding planet picks up material from the surrounding disk. TW Hydrae, however, is only 8 million years old. There has not been enough time for a planet to grow through the slow accumulation of smaller debris. In fact, a planet at 7.5 billion miles from its star would take more than 200 times longer to form than Jupiter did at its distance from the Sun because of its much slower orbital speed and a deficiency of material in the disk.

An alternative planet-formation theory suggests that a piece of the disk becomes gravitationally unstable and collapses on itself. In this scenario, a planet could form more quickly, in just a few thousand years.

"If we can actually confirm that there's a planet there, we can connect its characteristics to measurements of the gap properties," Debes says. "That might add to planet formation theories as to how you can actually form a planet very far out. There's definitely a gap structure. We think it's probably a planet given the fact that the gap is sharp and circular."

What complicates the story is that the red dwarf star is only 55 percent the mass of our Sun. "It's so intriguing to see a system like this," Debes says. "This is the lowest-mass star for which we've observed a gap so far out."

The disk also lacks large dust grains in its outer regions. Observations from ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter Array) show that millimeter-sized (tenths-of-an-inch-sized) dust, roughly the size of a grain of sand, cuts off sharply at about 5.5 billion miles from the star, just short of the gap. The disk is 41 billion miles across.

"Typically, you need pebbles before you can have a planet. So, if there is a planet and there is no dust larger than a grain of sand farther out, that would be a huge challenge to traditional planet-formation models," Debes says.

The Hubble observations reveal that the gap, which is 1.9 billion miles wide, is not completely cleared out. The team suggests that if a planet exists, it is in the process of forming and not very massive. Based on the evidence, team member Hannah Jang-Condell at the University of Wyoming in Laramie estimates that the putative planet is 6 to 28 times more massive than Earth. Within this range lies a class of planets called super-Earths and ice giants. Such a small planet mass is also a challenge to direct-collapse planet-formation theories, which predict that clumps of material one to two times more massive than Jupiter can collapse to form a planet.

TW Hydrae has been a popular target with astronomers. The system is one of the closest examples of a face-on disk, giving astronomers an overhead view of the star's environment. Debes's team used Hubble's Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) to observe the star in near-infrared light. The team then re-analyzed archival Hubble data, using more NICMOS images as well as optical and spectroscopic observations from the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS). Armed with these observations, they composed the most comprehensive view of the system in scattered light over many wavelengths.

When Debes accounted for the rate at which the disk dims from reflected starlight, the gap was highlighted. It was a feature that two previous Hubble studies had suspected but could not definitively confirm. These earlier observations noted an uneven brightness in the disk but did not identify it as a gap.

"When I first saw the gap structure, it just popped out like that," Debes says. "The fact that we see the gap at every wavelength tells you that it's a structural feature rather than an instrumental artifact or a feature of how the dust scatters light.

The team plans to use ALMA and NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, an infrared observatory set to launch in 2018, to study the system in more detail.

The team's paper will appear online on June 14 in The Astrophysical Journal.

For images, illustrations, and more information about TW Hydrae, visit:

http://hubblesite.org/news/2013/20

For more information about the Hubble Space Telescope, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/hubble

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md., conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc., in Washington.

Ray Villard | Newswise
Further information:
http://www.nasa.gov/hubble
http://www.stsci.edu

Further reports about: Extrasolar Hubble Hubble Space Telescope Hydra Jupiter NICMOS Planet STScI Space Telescope planet formation red dwarf

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht A tale of two pulsars' tails: Plumes offer geometry lessons to astronomers
18.01.2017 | Penn State

nachricht Studying fundamental particles in materials
17.01.2017 | Max-Planck-Institut für Struktur und Dynamik der Materie

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: How gut bacteria can make us ill

HZI researchers decipher infection mechanisms of Yersinia and immune responses of the host

Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...

Im Focus: Interfacial Superconductivity: Magnetic and superconducting order revealed simultaneously

Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.

While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...

Im Focus: Studying fundamental particles in materials

Laser-driving of semimetals allows creating novel quasiparticle states within condensed matter systems and switching between different states on ultrafast time scales

Studying properties of fundamental particles in condensed matter systems is a promising approach to quantum field theory. Quasiparticles offer the opportunity...

Im Focus: Designing Architecture with Solar Building Envelopes

Among the general public, solar thermal energy is currently associated with dark blue, rectangular collectors on building roofs. Technologies are needed for aesthetically high quality architecture which offer the architect more room for manoeuvre when it comes to low- and plus-energy buildings. With the “ArKol” project, researchers at Fraunhofer ISE together with partners are currently developing two façade collectors for solar thermal energy generation, which permit a high degree of design flexibility: a strip collector for opaque façade sections and a solar thermal blind for transparent sections. The current state of the two developments will be presented at the BAU 2017 trade fair.

As part of the “ArKol – development of architecturally highly integrated façade collectors with heat pipes” project, Fraunhofer ISE together with its partners...

Im Focus: How to inflate a hardened concrete shell with a weight of 80 t

At TU Wien, an alternative for resource intensive formwork for the construction of concrete domes was developed. It is now used in a test dome for the Austrian Federal Railways Infrastructure (ÖBB Infrastruktur).

Concrete shells are efficient structures, but not very resource efficient. The formwork for the construction of concrete domes alone requires a high amount of...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

12V, 48V, high-voltage – trends in E/E automotive architecture

10.01.2017 | Event News

2nd Conference on Non-Textual Information on 10 and 11 May 2017 in Hannover

09.01.2017 | Event News

Nothing will happen without batteries making it happen!

05.01.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

A big nano boost for solar cells

18.01.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Glass's off-kilter harmonies

18.01.2017 | Materials Sciences

Toward a 'smart' patch that automatically delivers insulin when needed

18.01.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>